“The internet is changing the way that sex is sold, leading to fresh models of exploitation.”
Gavin Shuker MP Chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.
The internet and digital technology are fuelling a worldwide growth in human sex trafficking. According to the ILO, 4.8 million individuals worldwide are victims of forced sexual exploitation, 21% of whom are children. And the ways in which the online sphere is facilitating this growth are multifaceted. It has changed the face of recruitment and advertising and led to new forms of exploitation such as webcam sex.
What is Sex Trafficking?
Sex trafficking is the inducement of a commercial sex act by means of force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act is younger than 18. Criminals use violence, threats, lies, money, drugs, and other forms of coercion to compel their victims to sell sex that they, in turn, profit from. Many victims become romantically involved with someone who then forces or manipulates them. Others are lured with false promises of a job, such as modelling or dancing. Some are forced to sell sex by family members. It is a lucrative industry, estimated to make $100 billion a year. And while the victims are not exclusively female, women and girls comprise 96%. Sex trafficking violates basic human rights, including the rights to bodily integrity, equality, dignity, health, security, and freedom from violence and torture.
What role does the internet play?
The internet provides traffickers with enormous scope to seek out and groom marginalised individuals. Sexual exploiters can scan social media for young, vulnerable individuals.
The study by the UOT Human Trafficking Institute, shows exploiters searching sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and dating apps like Tinder for posting activity which might indicate vulnerability. Targeted themes include substance abuse, runaway activity and destabilisation within the home. They will chat to the vulnerable, appear caring and build their trust. The APPG report discusses a 2017 case of a group of women trafficked from Eastern Europe to the UK for sexual exploitation. Here, the principal male suspect recruited females via the social media site ‘Badoo’. In their online chats, he lured them in with false promises of shop work or relationships. Upon arrival, they were taken straight to a brothel and coerced by threats of violence to their families back home.
Additionally, digital technology can be used as a surveillance tool to trap victims in the industry. Jennifer Gaines claims that her trafficker placed recording devices on her phone to track her every movement. Additionally, 50% of victims claim they were forced to make pornography at some point. Aside from generating profit in itself, pornography is used as a form of psychological manipulation to keep victims locked in the industry by making them believe they are permanently ‘tarnished’ since they are now on the internet forever. It is also worth noting here that when porn is non-consensual, involves coercion, violence or blackmail, it becomes a form of sex trafficking in its own right.
APPG’s 2018 report claims adult services websites such as Vivastreet and Adultwork “represent the most significant enabler of sexual exploitation in the UK”. These online adverts, generally featuring a revealing photo, name, contact number, hourly rate and rough location have become vital marketing and communication tools for sex traffickers to ensure a steady cycle of supply and demand. A buyer scrolling through the adverts cannot distinguish a consensual sex worker from a coerced one. The latter generally do not control their online profile themselves.
A brothel was identified in Cambridge last year through an advertising profile of a woman on Adultwork. On a safeguarding visit by police, it became clear that none of the three young women inside were able to access their online profiles and the advertised number was managed by someone external to the flat. In another case, a man investigated last year in the UK for sex trafficking spent over £20,000 placing adverts of women on one commercial website. And in the US, three quarters of sex trafficking victims claim they were advertised on websites such as Backpage and Craigslist. When these websites include such adverts, the website owners become third party profiteers of commercial sexual exploitation.
Webcam Sex Tourism
In addition to facilitating sexual recruitment and sale, the digital revolution has also created an entirely new form of sex sale: the burgeoning industry of webcam sex. Here, buyers enter an online webcam chat site and pay sellers to perform sex acts in front of the camera in a live-streamed session. Many consensual sex workers claim this is a positive addition, offering greater autonomy and the opportunity to work from a distance in relative safety. However, the webcam industry is also filled with victims of exploitation. What is more, this form of sex sale lends itself perfectly to transnational exploitation.
The Philippines has become the global epicentre of live-streaming sexual abuse. Tens of thousands of identified victims are children, some even babies. Paedophiles, many from Europe, the US, Canada and Australia pay facilitators on the other side of the world to sexually abuse children in these live videos, requesting particular acts they want performed. Arrests made of individuals participating include Americans Scott Peeler and David Deakin as well as Australian Kyle Dawson. Additionally, in 2014, the police raided a house in the slums of Manila to find a group of four girls and boys aged between 7 and 10 preparing for a ‘show’. The children were about to undress and perform sex acts on each other to an overseas customer. It was organised by an ‘operator’ living in the house, who was the mother of one of the children. In the surrounding area, it was an open secret that live-stream sexual abuse was happening. Dr. Tan, a pediatrician from the Child Protection Unit in Manila recalls, “The operator ran an open house, with ‘shows’ every other night…if children in the slum were hungry, they knew they could come for food and shelter, plus 150 pesos for taking part in the ‘show’.” In 2013, the Dutch child’s rights organisation Terre des Hommes ran an experiment to investigate demand for such acts. They launched a realistic-looking animation of a 10-year-old Filipino girl named Sweetie. They took the fake girl on chat groups and online forums. In less than two and a half months, they identified over 1,000 adults from over 65 countries, attempting to pay her to perform sexual acts in front of the webcam.
So, technology has made it easier to access illegal activities across borders and to sexually exploit those in poverty-ridden countries (one in three people in Manila live in slums). Cybersex dens are tricky to identify since anyone who has a computer, internet and a webcam can be in business. Additionally, by live-streaming as opposed to downloading illegal content, users bypass digital markers embedded by law enforcement to catch those watching child pornography.
I have explored the ways in which the internet perpetuates sexual exploitation. But what are the solutions? Firstly, the national helpline offering victims support and advice should be mentioned: https://www.modernslaveryhelpline.org/
Another suggestion being put forward by members of the APPG is to introduce a law in the UK similar to FOSTA in the US. This is not a straight-forward solution. FOSTA- the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act- was passed by Congress in March 2018. It was a measure to tackle the online sexual exploitation by holding website owners accountable for illegal content on them posted by others. Backpage, the largest website advertising sexual services, was successfully shut down. In some respects this was a victory given that Backpage was involved in 73% of all child trafficking cases reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. However, sex workers rights organisations and Amnesty International argue that the implementation of FOSTA has put consensual sex workers in much graver danger. Online communities enabled them to screen customers, share emergency information and, crucially, share lists of dangerous clients. Additionally, many workers claim that, by making it harder to self-advertise and work independently, they have been forced back into the hands of exploitative pimps. Thus it seems this measure could cause more harm than good.
It seems crucial to explore the idea that, while digital technology is in many respects perpetuating sexual exploitation, it can also be mobilised as a force for good. It can be used a tool to combat exploitation.
For example, by tracking digital footprints or using facial recognition to identify missing trafficked people. I touched earlier on the animation of a Filipino girl created by Terre des Hommes. This digital creation identified users willing to pay for the services of sexually trafficked children. Honey trap sites are a similar type of sting operation, purporting to contain child pornography but in fact designed to capture the IP or card details of visitors downloading images. These activities have resulted in numerous arrests but also, crucially, they create uncertainty in the minds of those seeking illegal content. They reduce their sense of freedom and anonymity and tackle the perception that the internet is a safe space for them.